The Man Who Could've Saved Toronto

Steve Nash, I love you. But you're breaking my heart.
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Restless in the night, I woke in a fugue state and gazed into my ceiling mirror. Sprawled in the reflection beside me was Steve Nash. He feathered his hair with an ivory-toothed comb and grinned like a savage. Purple and gold pajamas were his nightclothes. Before acknowledgements could be made, he rolled over and whispered to me:  

"I am a noble man, and you must forgive me."

As you may already know, Steve Nash is a 38-year-old point guard blessed with the shooting touch of Larry Bird, the court vision of Magic Johnson, and the body of an octogenarian marathon runner. In July, he joined the Los Angeles Lakers. His decision has not necessarily worked out for him so far; it has tormented me ever since.

At first, the torment was subtle, perhaps coincidental: mop-topped gingerbread men appeared on the shelves of my local bakery. Come August, my girlfriend developed the habit of licking her fingers before tossing wadded paper balls into the receptacle. Meanwhile, Steve Nash was getting piggyback rides around the Staples Center from Dwight Howard.

The passage of time managed to ease my psyche temporarily, as the Lakers made an awkward attempt to shoehorn Nash and two colossal bodies into their Princeton offense. They bungled out of the gate, briskly fired Mike Brown, and it appeared that Nash's talents would continue to atrophy in Phil Jackson's triangle. I slept as rocks do.

It wasn't until November 12, when the Lakers handed the reigns to Mike D'Antoni, that I suspected my torment had divinely premeditated roots. When two of my students arrived for a costume party dressed as Jack Nicholson and Lou Adler, my suspicions were confirmed.

Prep-time daydreams stoked memories of Nash's finesse in D'Antoni's 7-seconds-or-less offense. I recalled Nash and Amare running the pick and roll like Stockton and Malone on a magic carpet ride. I remembered Nash carving his way across every last tile of the court, free to shape each possession as he saw fit. Step-back threes, back-door alley-oops, and tightrope walks down the baseline capped by thunder dunks—no audible was too freaky for Nash and D'Antoni.

Indeed, Nash's title hopes may have blossomed with Phil Jackson, but the volume of his creative exploits would have been muffled, his individual successes easier to ignore. Now, under the guidance of D’Antoni, his Good Shepherd, Nash's complete arsenal is re-calibrated and free to lay waste to the Western Conference and my mental well-being. Not necessarily in that order.

***

I don’t wish Steve Nash ill. In fact, I have always admired him. I hope he is well, and I hope his new haircut has been a hit in Los Angeles. My torment has less to do with him than with the specifics of my unfulfilled wishes and broader disillusion. My portrayal of a perfect world once featured Steve Nash signing with the Toronto Raptors for three years, roughly $42 million, and the keys to the city. In idle moments, the details of his fate were planned with meticulous care. His inaugural press conference was scheduled to double as a mayoral swear-in; his birthday would be quietly promoted to a civic holiday. Yes, Nash would have been too old to lead these Raptors to the promised land, but my dream was never about championships.

My dream was about the redemption of my sports-city; one that is currently shrivelling in the midst of a decade-long drought.  

Consider this: just last year ESPN ranked Toronto dead last on its annual list of North American sports cities. Torontonians were shocked to find themselves at the bottom, but aside from the sporadically relevant Raptors, our best professional club has consistently been the Blue Jays. For nearly two decades, the Jays have attempted to charm us with a patchwork blend of castaways and young talent, only to thrash helplessly in the Scrooge McDuck money pit of the American League East. And while the Marlins have pried open the roof and dumped the top half of their roster into the Rogers Centre, the Jays will have to pay their dues in what is, even with a wounded Red Sox team, the toughest division in sports. The Jays' playoff drought stands at 19 seasons.

Just a few doors down, the Toronto Maple Leafs have become notorious for charging Laker prices in exchange for Sacramento Kings returns. The NHL’s most expensive ticket furnishes its keeper with an unobstructed view of a team that hasn't cut postseason ice in eight years. The Leafs’ housemates, the Raptors, occasionally flirt with mild success and boast a cultivated fan-base, but their enduring narrative has been one of betrayal; Chris Bosh is the latest defector on a storied list that features Damon Stoudamire, Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter. The Raptors’ current playoff drought stands at four seasons. The ultimate and natural effect of all this underachievement has been apathy, atrophy, abandonment.

Over the past decade, Toronto has gradually become a city with a passive interest in most of its teams. When hometown clubs underperform, we no longer beef; we simply refuse to show up. Such behavior is reasonable, perhaps expected, but it’s hard not to feel at least moderately bummed by the bald-spot attendance at Blue Jays, Raptors and Argos matches. Not only has there been a creeping disinterest in the majority of our clubs, but our sports satisfaction is no longer faithfully married to the home team. We have become, as Bill Simmons has it, a city of "sports bigamists," a city that loves sports but entertains multiple partners. Chat NBA basketball with a Toronto sports fan and you’ll hear the jarring but customary inquiry, "Who's your squad this year?"

This is especially disheartening for a city that is so actively engaged in sports. Torontonians are proudly boned up on the intricacies of advanced metrics, the hoops metaphysics of Free Darko, the ceaseless churn of highlight gifs, and yet struggle to name the Raptors' starting five. Just last spring, Jeremy Lin strolled into town, hit a game-winning bucket, and the ACC erupted like the ghost of Vince Carter dropped a double-pump reverse on Rik Smits. Fans were so anxious to cheer for something, for anything, that a betrayal of the home team felt acceptable, even if the infidelity was linked to a player who was running his wind-sprints in obscurity two weeks prior.

It’s difficult to imagine fans in Chicago, Boston or New York casually deserting their team for an overachieving longshot known to spend nights on his brother’s sofa. In Toronto, it wasn’t even newsworthy. We were delighted to have him.

***

Perhaps our apathy and casual philandering is tied to the long vacancy of our sports throne. Once the seat of Doug Gilmour during the glorious '93-'95 Maple Leafs rebirth, it has been deserted ever since.

Not entirely deserted, to be fair. A handful of stewards have dusted regularly in Gilmour’s absence, from Curtis Joseph and Mats Sundin to Vince Carter and Roy Halladay, but no one has captured the hearts of our city quite like Dougie the milk-drinking centaur. Steve Nash, modest and deferential and Canadian as he is, could have been that restoring king.

As NHL labour negotiations began to steam and bubble, Nash’s summer courtship with Toronto seemed ripe to produce the consummate hockey replacement. The timing was almost too perfect. Never before had the city’s hockey faithful been so inclined to pursue a love affair with athletes outside of their comfort zone. With a lockout on their doorstep and a numb distaste on their palate from years of flat play, hockey fans had nowhere else to turn. Who better to reclaim that vacant sports throne during a time of crisis than a fellow countryman, known for his Gretzky-like affability and parallel playmaking touch? Who better to revive an apathetic Hogtown than a blood-soaked floor general, known for his postseason death-matches against the NBA’s most hated team? In a city that soaks up gritty, selfless acts of hockey heroism, it felt picture perfect.

Just look at Phoenix’s overachievement with fringe-y talent last season, and then imagine what could’ve been with Nash’s dream: a floor-stretching 7-footer in Andrea Bargnani, free to run the court, block shots, and hit wide-open treys; DeMar Derozan swinging gap-toothed from the rim after a trillionth alley-oop in transition; Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas flourishing under the wing of the game's finest on-court mind.

Imagine a raw Raptors team, shaped by an old master. They could have played loveable underdog all season before making a splash into the playoffs. They could have been beautiful.

Granted, that team wasn’t going to win a NBA title, but even second-round appearances have blown the roof off the ACC in the past. A few seasons ago, I attended a first-rounder against the Nets, and it felt like we were celebrating the execution of Satan at the Pearly Gates. With Nash at the helm, there’s no question the city would’ve been his come April.

April, once one of our most-anticipated months. It used to be a time when the smell of spring brought false impressions of early summer, when Beer Store runs were highlighted with hopeful playoff chatter about our team. Ambient noise from sports bars once delivered wildly optimistic assessments of Chris Bosh and Mats Sundin to the breeze. This is not our April now, but Steve Nash had to know that it could have been once more, had he settled in Toronto.

Call me a romantic, but I still believe Steve Nash had starry eyes at such a prospect. I like to think he saw his face on those April banners we once strung up during playoff season. I like to think he saw his image reflected in the smitten eyes of an entire nation. I also like to think he saw the continent’s most underwhelmed fan-base dying to explode after a tempo-swinging step-back three.

Unfortunately, during those hopeful summer negotiations, Bryan Colangelo, the architect of Phoenix’s light-speed offense in 2004-5, tinkered with Nash’s fate yet again. He signed Landry Fields to a $20 million contract, and the dominoes fell briskly thereafter, puncturing any dreams Torontonians had with basketball’s interpretation of  number 99. Images of home-turf glory promptly fled Nash’s mind, only to be replaced with the howling winds and Hoth-level blizzards of Toronto legend. Nash wisely remembered that championship belts are superior to second round knock-outs.

And so there I laid, the recipient of an imaginary Steve Nash apology that failed to pacify my torment. Yet another bone-cold winter was about to unfold without a home team poised to inspire. I glanced into the ceiling mirror once more, and my thoughts drifted to Kyle Lowry, the young consolation prize Toronto received in the Steve Nash sweepstakes. Stout and unorthodox, Lowry decorates box scores with captivating lines that comfort fantasy owners in basements on both sides of the border.

He’s a solid player, perhaps a really good one, but that’s just it. He’s not the home-bred hockey distraction we let slip through our fingertips. Nor is he the once-in-a-lifetime fit that could have stirred a city from its torpor. Unfairly, he’ll forever be a symbol of what could have been, and we’ll never stop wondering what sort of closing act Steve Nash could’ve treated us to in Toronto.

Illustration by Dustin Watson/Darkwing Illustration.


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